Thursday, May 25, 2017

Socratic Shouting- a post by Steven Dowdle

This post is written by Steven Dowdle. If you have a story of a lesson or project that burned down, fell over, and sunk into the swamp that you want to share because it's funny, because you need to vent, because we can learn from it, or simply because "Can you believe this!?!?" please email me at or shoot a DM to @TheWeirdTeacher.

My class is heavily designed around discussion; it is, after all, called Socratic Seminar. Taking two periods a day to cover both history core and Language Arts curriculum, the high school class is a fusion of both disciplines and very much a sum greater than its parts.
In order to assess how well students have become conversant in deep, worthwhile conversations, I have an end of year final that, on the surface, is quite simple. Step one: Read a common text (in this case, a film) that is replete with profound implications and ideas. Step two: Let the kids loose on it, with some guiding questions from which they can begin.
Again, it's pretty simple. In some ways, it's the quintessence of learning: A question, and those with whom to discuss the question.
Because this is high school and things that "count on my grade" are given more attention and preparation, I model the Socratic Circle throughout the second semester. Today marked the fourth time they've had a common text, guiding questions, and a chance to talk at each other. Every time, we had a pre-write, discussion, post-write, letting the kids have their thoughts, discuss things, then see where they ended up.
For my part, I sit to one side and take careful notes about who's speaking, whether or not they reference the text (written or film, we consider it the text of the conversation regardless), and if they're jotting down notes and thoughts throughout the hour or so they have to chew on the idea. This allows me to see who is speaking a lot, who isn't, but also generate an imperfect-but-it-works grading system.
Today, the students came in for their two-hour final, during which time they watched the last 30 minutes of the film, then were given the remaining 90 minutes to dissect three potential questions. I figured, They can go with thirty minutes on each question and feel pretty satisfied that they pushed well on each idea. While every question has potential for immense exploration, the logical division of time made sense to me. Being smart, capable kids (for the most part), I assumed they'd do a similar assessment: We have about thirty minutes for each question, let's tackle them in order. In short, I thought they'd follow the way I've scaffolded, modeled, and shown them throughout the last school year.
But, hey…we all have to be reminded, every once in awhile, how we feel when we're confronted with that old adage about assuming…
Right out of the gate, the first speakers seemed interested in--for lack of a more polite, less descriptive phrase--vomiting their ideas as quickly as possible. There was a sense of urgency in what was being said, but not a sense of listening. One idea shotgunned, another was quickly loaded into the breach. The class soon closed up the wall with their thoughtful dead, choking any chance for the conversation to progress in their eagerness to speak up, speak out, and neither build upon nor listen to their peers.
Like a firework, this sound and fury quickly burned out, leaving the class with copious amounts of time and ashes where they should have had fertile fields. I'm mixing my metaphors a bit too much, here, but the point is that it took a good twenty or thirty minutes before any semblance of balance came to the class, but by then there was nowhere to go. The best ideas--the ones that were guided by the questions and the text--were glanced off of, while the kids chased less worthwhile or only tangentially connected possibilities.
As can happen, two or three voices dominated the conversation. We've been talking about and training (as it were) to keep this kind of thing to a minimum, but whatever progress we made in our last practices failed. Quiet kids had plenty of time to talk--and some of them actually jumped into the rink, a small success among such intellectual deforestation--but what they brought up was superficially accepted, then the topic shifted to whatever the more outspoken wished to discuss.
In a rare breach of protocol, I spoke up--though it was more of a "comment loud enough to be heard but is obviously only meant for the self" kind of thing--and mumbled, "This is a train wreck."
It was. It has been years since I've been so shocked at the poor work of students. I had, going into this final, great confidence for what the students would be able to put together. Previous sessions had gone well, we'd been conversing (with me as the lead moderator) the whole year long, and some of the students had even done miniature lessons where they conducted the discussion. So what went wrong?
Strangely enough, I think it was the writing. Due to time restraints, we skipped the pre-write step of the experience, which is something that I know I ought not to do. However, thanks to a mismanagement of time, I didn't direct the students to do some preparation. Admittedly, the film wasn't over yet, so some of the greatest points weren't something that they could invest in. Nevertheless, the skipping of that formative moment, I think, made a tangible difference.
I've noticed this when I've been asked to talk to groups and "lead a discussion" about something: Without priming the pump, nothing works the way it ought to. I think of stand-up comedians and live bands. There's a dual reason for opening acts: One is to help the exposure of less known artists, but the larger purpose is to warm up the crowd. The kids didn't get a warm-up act. Thrown in cold, they floundered.
So, lesson learned. THAT didn't work, but I'm hopeful that I can improve the experience.
Next year, of course.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Goodwin's Accidental Lesson Plan

Thank you to Jay Nickerson for taking a risk and submitting this. Remember, this blog lives only because of the community supporting it and believing that sharing our struggles with clarity can be as valuable as sharing our successes. To share, email or share a Doc with

For about six years I’ve had a project that I absolutely adore with my Grade 10 classes working within a theme of Heroism and Facing Adversity. It’s called The Rebel Project. I’ve blogged about it, but essentially, it’s a flashy way for students to present their research about someone who has rebelled, like a Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, who are featured pretty much every year. Students research and write a profile, which gets attached to the back of an art piece incorporating a portrait and quote.

They look really cool, and students enjoy creating them.

Three years ago, my first at my current school, my Grade 10s were about to start The Rebel Project. I had the sheets, I had old examples, I had lists of rebels available if people couldn’t find one on their own. I was prepared for just about everything this project needed, as well as the personality quirks of my class. I had, like we all do, planned for all the possible curveballs this particular class could throw at me.

And it was going really well. It’s an engaging project, especially once they get into the hands-on part. I made a point, as every good teacher does, of positioning myself near the pockets of potential tomfoolery and discontent. There was, as there often is, that pocket of students in the room who don’t need a lot of guidance and input, the ones that you trust are doing the things, and usually do quite well without much instruction from you. This is the part of the classroom from which you don’t foresee any issues arising from.

Which, as we all know too well, isn’t something we should necessarily count on.

The portraits for the art pieces are actually spray painted using stencils that the students cut. That means they have knives, which means keeping a very close eye on a certain part of the population. What this meant, this time, was that a bunch of my students made it to “Spray Day” without much input from me. In fact, a number of them would be done the project once they sprayed their rebel onto their canvases.

Which was awesome until I was outside with kids and spray paint, and watched one of those trustworthy kids pull off his stencil to reveal his finished piece, highlighting his rebel of choice… Adolf Hitler.

I was absolutely flummoxed! I couldn’t believe this was happening. We had talked about what a rebel was, and although it may be true that I never expressly stated that someone like Hitler wasn’t the kind of rebel we’d focus on, here we were.

I spoke to the student involved, and he actually mounted a good defense, based upon his research. He falsely argued that Hitler had actually worked to make things better for the German people. He conceded that when one takes a broader view of history, perhaps Hitler wasn’t a very good choice. It was a good chat, one of those teachable moment chats, where we discussed the bigger picture. Too often, as teachers, we have a tendency to assume that our students know certain things are taken a certain way, and this student had missed that. Perspective is an important thing, and in using a somewhat broad definition of rebel, the student had missed the horrendous impact of Hitler’s actions. Clearly, neither of us were fans of what Hitler did to try to make the changes he wanted to see in the world.

We were at a bit of a crossroads though. With the exception of adding his quote, his project was done – that canvas was painted, the profile was written, and all that needed to be done was the addition of a quote. Mortified that he’d misread things, afraid that he’d have to do everything over, this young man was in a bit of a state. We agreed, however, that he’d put his quote on quickly, so as to meet all project requirements, and he’d be done, and I would be sure not to include his project in any showcasing that we did.

Now, when we do the Rebel Project, we put a lot more work into creating a definition of a rebel. I make sure that I get a list of who’s doing which rebel. One of the goals of the project is to think about the positive impacts and efforts that people have made on society. I am much more vocal about the types of people that we focus on, and we have a lot of discussion about who makes the cut. In fact, the biggest takeaway for me from this was the importance of having these discussions with my students - talking about whether the ends justify the means, and whether great wrongs are done to achieve a “right” that benefits a privileged few. I’ve held on to the Hitler project however, because the shock of seeing that project so close to completion makes an impact.